Elements of Interpretation

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How do we depict the fragmentary remains of the past?
What suffices to represent a site or individual object?

In their encounter with the remains of antiquity, European writers of the eighteenth and early nineteenth centuries were most concerned with, sought out, and recorded those objects that they believed held aesthetic value. These objects served as markers of taste and distinction for Europe’s elites, either in their suitability for inclusion in private collections or as inspiration for new art that evoked the classical past. In the last two centuries, with the emergence of the professional archaeologist, new agendas opened up that focused on the antique fragment. Today, the kinds of data that archaeologists deem worthy of inclusion in a standard archaeological report have diversified and multiplied with the availability of new analytic techniques. Objects of specifically aesthetic interest must share time with other site data—for example, the different stratigraphic layers of soil deposits. There is the (often explicitly stated) aim of capturing all the available data from a site, no matter how apparently trivial. This has become all the more important for archaeologists with the relatively recent realization (or emphasis on the realization) that they can never repeat the excavation of a site and that discarded data cannot be recovered. Once lost, data is lost forever. Yet no matter how meticulous an observer he or she aims to be, the archaeologist must still make decisions about what does or does not merit recording and portraying in the final publication.

The visual examples in this exhibition, chosen from texts in the Art & Architecture Library’s Locked Stack collection, illustrate the field’s evolving approach to representing the past’s fragmentary remains. Although the exhibition casts light on the fragment’s transformation from art piece or aesthetic ruin to a more ascetic archaeological object, it does not map a linear narrative of the development of a “true and correct archaeology.” Several of the oldest texts here display an almost unparalleled concern for technical accuracy. As a whole, the books collected reveal a number of influences on representational form, especially the interests and agendas of professional archaeologists compared and contrasted with the expectations and requirements of other audiences.

Curated by David Platt
Designed by Anna Fishaut

First Case

Les ruines de Pompei
DG70 .P7 M33 FF V.1 -4 ARTLCKL
Recorder and Record

The examples from two texts in this case have been chosen because they acknowledge the presence of the recorder in some way. There are a number of reasons why one might want to do this. By inserting representations of the recording process into the larger work, the writers and artists demonstrate their adherence to agreed upon or new standards of accuracy. Representing the tools and procedures of recording also demonstrates—in different ways—mastery of the artifact. However, most importantly for this exhibition, the representations tacitly acknowledge the role of the recorder and the human element in the interpretation of the data. They serve to remind us of the potential for omission or simple emphasis of some elements at the expense of others, whether by design or accident. And in instances where a separate artist was meant subsequently to utilize the record for textual illustration, these omissions and emphases might reverberate in representations intended for broader audiences, far removed from the archaeological academy (more examples of which appear in this exhibition’s additional cases).

In the case:

The first text is from French architect Charles François Mazois’s (1783-1826) four-volume work, Les ruines de Pompei (1824-1838). Mazois worked in Pompeii during the years in which the Kingdom of Naples was under the direct influence of Napoleonic France; his work had a significant impact on the development of French architectural style. The Neapolitan government sponsored the project; Mazois’s patron was Caroline Murat (Napoleon’s sister, married to the French general Joachim Murat). This authorized work represented one of the earliest attempts to record the Pompeian material in meticulous detail—effectively making a Bonapartist claim for its control. For the most part, the illustrations focus on architectural detail only and do not concern themselves with the methods of recording. In a rare exception, Mazois has included figures carrying surveying measure, string, and plumb-bob, the necessary instruments for the task. However, the buildings were already excavated upon his arrival on the scene, and it is not this process that concerns Mazois (nor his readers).

In comparison, the modern archaeological report features the act of recording more prominently. There are many more representations of the recording process in today’s standard archaeological report—although these are still outnumbered by pictures of archaeological trenches without excavators. We might attribute this rise to a shift in the character of the archaeological site, the increased role that excavation plays, and an awareness that excavation is an “unrepeatable experiment” (in archaeologist Phil Barker’s phrase). The picture in the second volume, The Sutton Hoo Ship-Burial (1975), by Rupert Bruce-Mitford, with contributions by Paul Ashbee et al, shows archaeologists with a one-meter square planning-frame mapping an area of the excavation. The caption draws our attention to the original context of the Anastasius Dish (newly excavated on the facing page). Even were the scene actually staged for the benefit of the camera, its candid character underlines the unrepeatable nature of the event.

As a footnote to this case: within the limitations of supposedly neutral and objective recording, there is room still for experimentation. This 1930s photomontage—again taken from the formal excavation reports, The Sutton Hoo Ship-Burial (1975)—pieces together single shots of sections of the ship in an effort to represent the extent of the site. In this picture, excavators have abandoned the scene but the tools they used in uncovering the ship are left behind.

Second Case

Les antiquitiés d'Athènes et de l'Attique
Antecedents of the Archaeological Tradition

Conventional histories of archaeology’s development as a discipline locate its origins in the European Grand Tour and antiquarianism. But this delineation of what is appropriately archaeological and technical sometimes does the previous antiquarian tradition a disservice. Far from what we might expect of movements that celebrated the “amateur” and produced the original dilettanti (in the members of the Society of the Dilettanti), these precursors often demonstrated extremely high standards of accuracy in their recording, as well as the bold adoption of new tools and methods to assist in the representation of locations on the page.

In the case:

The first item in this case is a facsimile of a sixteenth-century manuscript, Disegni de le ruine di Roma e come anticamente erono; the original was attributed to by Thomas Ashby in 1908 to Etienne Du Pérac (d. 1604). Little is known about the manuscript (much of its text has been lost), and there has been some dispute about its authorship. Modern commentator Rudolf Wittkower, based on knowledge of other work by Du Pérac, has suggested that the opulent vellum original might have been intended for dedication to the Pope. Unusually for a work of this date, it juxtaposes images of contemporary ruins with imaginative reconstructions of the buildings as they might have appeared in antiquity.

Following on from this are two examples of itineraries, compiled for those embarking on tours of the Italian countryside. Gaetano D’Ancora’s Gvida ragionata per le antichita e per le cvriosita natvrali di Pozzvoli e de lvoghi circonvicini (1792) and Mariano Vasi’s Itinerario istruttivo da Roma a Napoli (1821). This page from Vasi’s itinerary includes numerous engravings of ruined buildings (whether excavated or discovered in the landscape). Despite its earlier publication, D’Ancora’s guide takes a more technical approach to the buildings that he discusses, and he employs a variety of methods in their representation, including cross sections of buildings and detailed topographical maps.

Les antiquitiés d’Athènes et de l’Attique (1881) is a French edition of James “Athenian” Stuart’s and Nicholas Revett’s The Antiquities of Athens (1762). That it was reproduced over 100 years after its original publication attests to its enduring influence in nineteenth-century archaeological and architectural studies and beyond. Sponsored by the Society of Dilettanti, both Stuart and Revett were architects whose chief concern was to produce as accurate an architectural record as possible. Commentators have contrasted their approach with the more romanticized one of their contemporary French rival Julien-David Le Roy. Such was their thoroughness that the two architects conducted their own archaeological excavation of several buildings in order to complete their drawings, including this restored floorplan of the Hellenistic-era Tower of the Winds.

The final two books in the case are William Gell’s The Topography of Troy, and its Vicinity; Illustrated and Explained by Drawings and Descriptions (1804) and The Geography and Antiquities of Ithaca (1807). Both are dedicated to aristocratic or royal patrons—the former to the Duchess of Devonshire, the latter to the British king. In 1807, Gell joined the Society of Dilettanti which provided funding for several of his later trips around the Mediterranean. Gell’s work made pioneering use of the camera lucida and sextant for topographical and archaeological survey. Historian Andrew Wallace-Hadrill has compared Gell’s use of the sextant to modern archaeologists’ use of another originally military technology, GPS. While embracing new technologies, Gell is working within a tradition of regional geographic and topographic writing or chorography. He explicitly seeks out elements of the landscape (rivers, hills, etc.) that he can connect to ancient texts; the end product is a kind of “deep map” of the area. One consequence of his approach is that ruins can seemingly recede from view. A particularly extreme example of this is in his image of the Leucadian promontory which Gell links to the fabled suicide of Sappho. He identifies the remains of a Temple of Apollo that are barely (if at all) visible to the reader. Gell’s interest in the larger landscape in these two studies reflects both the chorographic tradition and the contemporaneous aristocratic interest in landscape gardening.

Third Case

Pompei restaurato
DG70 .P7 P666 1800Z ARTLCKS
Building Remains: Pompeii and Herculaneum

The books in this case highlight different approaches to the recording of buildings from Pompeii and Herculaneum. These two sites represent a paradox for archaeologists: the circumstances of their preservation mean that they are unlike almost any other archaeological sites, but the spectacular state of preservation on their original rediscovery in the seventeenth century has granted them iconic status. The two sites played a major role in the stimulation of the popular imagination and generation of enthusiasm for the classical past, appealing to a wide variety of different audiences over the centuries. Across the four examples in this case, we begin to see more clearly the different interests of connoisseur, tourist, and modern archaeologist.

In the case:

The first volume in this case comes from the nine-volume Antiquités d’Herculanum, ou Les plus belles peintures antiques, et les marbres, bronzes, meubles, etc. etc. trouvés dans les excavations d’Herculanum, Stabia et Pompeïa (1780-1803), by Sylvain Maréchal and François-Anne David. It is a French edition of Delle antichità di Ercolano (produced by the Real accademia ercolanese and authorized by the Kingdom of Naples). The original was produced for elite patrons and collectors. In the years following, various editions were produced aimed at different audiences. The set is concerned with recording and discussing wall paintings, statuary, and portable items from Herculaneum as art objects. In the examples from this volume, the author isolates the wall paintings from their original context entirely, giving no sense of their location in and among the town’s buildings.

Throughout, this nineteenth-century souvenir book (Pompei restaurato, author unknown) juxtaposes two views of locations from Pompeii: photographs of the excavated remains, almost entirely lacking people, and vivid reconstructions of the buildings with ancient Pompeiians engaged in daily activities. The work reflects the increasing fame and popularity of Pompeii and Herculaneum in the European public’s imagination—a popularity in part stimulated by the advent of mass tourism and Edward Bulwer-Lytton’s novel The Last Days of Pompeii (1834)—this album’s front page bears a dramatic depiction of Pompeii’s “Ultimo Giorno.” However, in contrast to Antiquités d’Herculanum, this book pushes the contextual architectural and decorative detail into the background, focusing on repopulating and bringing the ruins to life as one walks through them.

The last two pieces come from twentieth-century excavation reports: Vittorio Spinazzola’s Pompei alla luce degli scavi nuovi di Via dell’Abbondanza (anni 1910-1923) (1953) and Amedeo Mauiri’s Ercolano; i nuovi scavi (1927-1958) (1958). Both showcase the presentation of detailed archaeological reconstructions from the first half of the twentieth century. Looking at Plates 20 (XX) and 28 (XXVIII) from Maiuri’s work, one can see several painting panels set in their original wall contexts. The audiences for these lavish volumes would have been scholarly; the books would have had relatively limited circulation outside of academic libraries.

Fourth Case

The Palace of Minos; a Comparative Account of the Successive Stages of the Early Cretan Civilization as Illustrated by the Discoveries at Knossos
DF221.C8 E75 V.1-4 1921-35 ARTLCKS
Small Finds

This case concentrates on the representation of smaller, more easily portable, objects from archaeological sites. As with the previous case, the earliest technical works are aimed at aristocratic (and not necessarily scholarly) patrons and collectors, focusing on the artistic merits of elements of the artifacts, removing them from their artifactual and material context. This selection might be surprising to the modern viewer as, in contrast to buildings, the ease with which the viewer’s eye can take the objects in might suggest that that representation of the whole would be more likely than a partial one. At the other end of the period spanned in this display, we see an example of a parallel tendency to fragment an individual object in modern archaeological discourse.

In the case:

Outlines from the Figures and Compositions upon the Greek, Roman, and Etruscan Vases of the Late Sir William Hamilton; with Engraved Borders (1804) consists of reproductions of images from various vases belonging to the famous eighteenth-century collector. In assembling this collection, the author effectively invites the reader to admire the taste and discernment of the original aristocratic collector. The borders in these engravings did not frame the scenes on the original vases in the way they do here; instead, the artist fashioned these frames from decorative elements transferred and adapted from other parts of the pots.

A Collection of Antique Vases, Altars, Pateræ, Tripods, Candelabra, Sarcophagi, &c. from Various Museums and Collections (1814), by Henry Moses, also concerns itself with “correct taste and good judgement.” Moses emphasizes the artistic value of the pieces but has drawn his examples from several different collections; they no longer testify to the taste of an individual collector but, instead, tacitly indicate the taste and social connections of the book’s author. Although, in this example, Moses has produced a full version of the scene on the vase, he always attempts to represent the images in the context of the larger object.

In the preface of The Palace of Minos; a Comparative Account of the Successive Stages of the Early Cretan Civilization as Illustrated by the Discoveries at Knossos (1921-35), Arthur Evans states his intent to present both a lucid story of the history of a lost civilization and a technical report of the excavation of its remains. Throughout the six volumes, Evans employs a range of illustrative techniques to make his points, sometimes wrapping text around black and white line drawings (none as fine as the older examples in this case) and photographs; at other times—as here—he presents color illustrations as separate plates. This plate demonstrates a range of representational techniques, including a cross-sectional drawing of a vessel not readily obtained through direct observation but relying upon technical measuring. Evans is also prepared to show excavated broken pot sherds alongside whole pots. By doing so, he gives the original archaeological fragment equal value with the artistic (and perhaps therefore more aesthetically pleasing) reconstruction.

Finally, the images of a scepter from The Sutton Hoo Ship-Burial (1975) by Rupert Bruce-Mitford, with contributions by Paul Ashbee et al, make a radical departure from the other examples in this case: they employ multiple fragmentary images in order to convey different elements of a larger item rather than showing different views of the whole artifact (represented more traditionally elsewhere in the text).

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